Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly rock star from Arkansas who became a patron of the Canadian music scene after moving north and recruiting a handful of local musicians who later became known as the band, has passed away.
His wife, Wanda, confirmed to the Canadian press that Hawkins died Sunday morning after an illness. He was 87 years old.
“He went in peace and looked more handsome than ever,” she said over the phone.
Born just two days after Elvis Presley, the original Huntsville Buddies were called the Hawk (he also called himself “King of Rockabilly” and “Mr. Dynamo”) a hellish buff with a big jaw and buxom build.
He had minor successes in the 1950s with “Mary Lou” and “Odyssey” and ran a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where his work included early rock stars such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Tweety.
Grill Marcus wrote in his famous book on American music and culture, The Mysterious Train, “Hawkins is the only man I’ve ever heard who can compose a song as sweet and sexy as the sordid ‘My Gal is Red Hot’ sound that Hawk allegedly ‘knows more than Back roads, backrooms, and aft more than any man from Newark to Mexicali.”
Hawkins didn’t have Presley or Perkins gifts, but he had ambition and an eye for talent.
He first sang in Canada in the late 1950s and realized that he would stand out much more in a country where local rock music barely existed. Canadian musicians often moved to the United States to advance their careers, but Hawkins rarely attempted the opposite.
With drummer and fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, Hawkins formed a Canadian backing group that included guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and guitarist Rick Danko. They became Hawks, and were educated at the Hawkins School of Rock.
“When the music got a little bit off Rooney’s ear, or he couldn’t decide when to sing, he was telling us that no one but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing. But the important thing with him was that he made us rehearse a lot,” Robertson told Rolling Stone in 1978. We don’t go and play until 1 am and then we train until 4. “
Robertson and his friends supported Hawkins from 1961 to 1963, performing rock-and-rolling across Canada and recording a howling cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that became one of Hawkins’ signature songs.
But Hawkins wasn’t selling many records and the Hawks had outdone their leader. They were associated with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s and by the end of the decade had become single stars who renamed themselves the band.
Meanwhile, Hawkins settled in Peterborough, Ontario, and had a handful of top 40 bachelors there, including “Bluebirds in the Mountain” and “Down in the Alley.”
Admittedly, he didn’t keep up with the latest sound – he was horrified the first time he heard Canadian Neil Young – but in the late 1960s he became friends with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They stayed with Hawkins, his wife Wanda, and three children while they were visiting Canada.
“At that very time, I thought I was doing them a favor,” he later told the National Post. “I thought the Beatles were a lucky English band. I didn’t know much about their music. I thought Yoko was (ridiculous). To this day, I’ve never heard of a Beatle album. For $10 billion, I couldn’t name a single song on “Abbey Road” I’ve never in my life picked out and listened to a Beatle album. Never. But John was so powerful. I admire him. He wasn’t one of those wonderful people, you know.”
Hawkins also stayed in touch with the band and was among the guests in 1976 for the All-Star Farewell Party that was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Last Waltz”.
For a few moments, he’s back in power, smiling and fumbling under his Stetson hat, calling out to his former followers “Big time, big time” as they rip “Who Do You Love”.
Besides “The Last Waltz,” Hawkins has also appeared in Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara,” the big budget failures “Heaven’s Gate” and “Hello Mary Lou.” Narrated by Dan Aykroyd in 2007, Hawkins’ documentary “Alive and Kickin” featured a movie starring another famous Arkansan figure, Bill Clinton.
Hawkins’ albums included “Ronnie Hawkins,” “The Hawk,” and “Can’t Stop Rockin,” the notable 2001 release of Helm and Robertson featured on the same song, “Blue Moon in My Sign.” Helm and Robertson no longer speak, having fallen out after The Last Waltz, and recording their contributions at separate studios.
Over time, Hawkins has mentored several young Canadian musicians who have gone on to successful careers, including guitarist Pat Travers and future guitarist Janis Joplin, John Tell.
He has received numerous honorary awards from his adoptive country, and in 2013 he was selected as a member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions to the development of the music industry in Canada, as a rock and roll musician, and for his support of charitable causes.”
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